By Tomoeh Murakami Tse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 26, 2006
A federal judge temporarily barred Northwest Airlines flight attendants from going on strike last night, averting potential delays during the last days of the summer travel season.
The decision yesterday by U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero in New York came hours before sporadic work stoppages planned by the flight attendants were to begin, at about 10:01 p.m. The judge issued the temporary injunction while he considered the nation's fifth-largest carrier's request to block the strike.
Northwest has a limited presence at all three major airports in the Washington area.
Marrero did not say when he would make a decision on blocking the strike. But the preliminary injunction was welcomed by the airline, which is reorganizing under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Northwest had appealed a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge's ruling last week that he did not have jurisdiction to stop the strike.
"Our customers can continue to book Northwest with confidence," said Kurt Ebenhoch, a spokesman for the airline.
The Association of Flight Attendants, which represents the airline's approximately 9,300 flight attendants, said it would abide by the judge's ruling.
"It was just a temporary decision. It is not a win for the company," said Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for association. "We're quite confident that when the decision is made, it will uphold the Northwest flight attendants' right to strike."
In the meantime, she said, workers were planning to picket and distribute fliers at airports across the country last night.
The flight attendants are protesting wage and benefit cuts the airline imposed July 31.
Both sides suggested that they were open to further negotiations, but as of yesterday evening, none were scheduled.
"We're by the phone and waiting for Northwest to call," said Joshua Zivick, the flight attendants' interim local council president in New York who attended yesterday's hearing. "Our group is disappointed, but they know it's only a temporary setback. The battle is not over."
In a statement, Douglas M. Steenland, Northwest's president and chief executive, said: "We remain committed to negotiating a consensual agreement with our flight attendants and hope to accomplish that goal in the near future."
Northwest said in its bankruptcy filing last fall that it needed $1.4 billion in wage concessions from its various unions. Flight attendants on July 31 rejected a proposed contract, approved by the union negotiator, that would have cut their pay and benefits by more than 20 percent, or about $195 million a year.
Willis J. Goldsmith, a labor and employment lawyer at the firm Jones Day in New York, said it was likely that the two sides could reach an agreement before the judge makes a final decision.
"The stakes are very high for all concerned, and those are the kinds of circumstances that tend to cause parties to return to the table at some point," he said.
The Justice Department, along with others, had asked Marrero to block the strike, saying it would cripple air travel.
In August 2005, Northwest's 4,400 mechanics and maintenance workers walked off their jobs. It was the first major airline strike in seven years, but Northwest experienced only minor disruptions.